By Stephen McKinley
Clutching “Irish Election 2002” guides like form sheets, punters filled O’Neill’s bar in Midtown Manhattan from 8 a.m. last Saturday, watching, waiting and sometimes cheering the results of the greatest Irish race of the year, the general election. Thanks to the Internet, it was every bit as good as a day at the races.
RTE’s radio announcer via a dial-up modem had to compete with the running commentary of the assembled crowd: “Fianna Fail’s doing very well” . . . “Sinn Fein will get at least six seats” . . . “Fine Gael have been routed” . . . “As no candidate has exceeded the quota . . . ”
Talk mingled with technology — except when the Internet connection broke, and the crowd grew restless. But the bar man had been readying the spotless bar since 6, and the kitchen staff were in full swing, and there were plenty of full Irish breakfasts to serve.
O’Neill’s owner, Kieran Staunton, had organized the event, just as he had done so for the previous year’s Westminster elections in Northern Ireland. That electoral system was first-past-the-post. The Irish election involved proportional representation, so Staunton was to be found staring intently into the computer screen, tallying the results as, slowly but inexorably, the Irish electorate returned Bertie Ahern to power, 3,000 miles away.
“Fine Gael is getting hammered,” said Derry man Liam MacNellis, looking gleeful. He opined, rightly as it turned out, that Dick Spring would lose his seat for the Labor Party.
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Meanwhile, at the computer, making sure RTE was reconnected, was Caolon Campbell, 21 and fresh from Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Like most others in the bar, he was rooting for Sinn Fein. And he was fascinated by elections. According to his roommate, Campbell still didn’t know which way was north or south in Manhattan, but he sure knew his way around an iMac laptop.
“Too many people are trying to get online,” he said, “so the connection keeps breaking up.” He clicked “refresh” again.
On a dull and cloudy New York Saturday, O’Neill’s must have looked an inviting place to the two police officers strolling past outside. Inside was all coffee cups, pint glasses and big, hearty plates of eggs, sausage, bacon, toast. The soft, yellow lighting swallowed up the harsh, high-tech blue glare of the computer screens, giving the bar an edge of mystery when seen from outside on Third Avenue.
Inside, however, the only mystery — apart from the final result — was the vagaries of the Irish electoral system.
One American voice asked, what “no candidate has exceeded the quota on this count?” Several Irish accents started in to explain. Meanwhile, Campbell at his laptop had the connection going again, and an RTE voice broke into the bar again.
“Many candidates standing in this election are in their 20s,” said the voice, interviewing a Sinn Fein party member back in Dublin, musing on the youthfulness of the party’s membership. “Where do you see Sinn Fein in 10 years?” he asked.
The female Sinn Fein member laughed, and to cheers in O’Neill’s, said: “in a united Ireland.”
She continued: “People see us as a force on the national question, but also where we want to go in social and economic terms.”
On cue, the door opened to reveal a familiar force: Alex Maskey, Sinn Fein council member from Belfast, entered the room.
“Belfast’s next lord mayor!” exclaimed a voice in greeting. True enough — Maskey said that the next election for mayor of Belfast was on June 5. He was hopeful of winning that election as well, he said, the day before the Dail would meet for the first time after the election, hopefully with a much-enlarged Sinn Fein contingent.
“Everybody’s here,” said John T. Fitzgerald, who had seated himself in front of a heaped plate of french toast, eggs and ham. He liberally applied the syrup from a jug. “If you weren’t here, people would ask, ‘Where were you?’ ”
Maskey, having seen some results on the screen, said he was very happy.
“We’re exceeding public projections,” he said. “We’re on course to be a real political force, addressing the issues of the island as a whole. It’s looking like five seats.”
Maskey, as it turned out, was spot-on.
“Kerry North,” said a radio voice, and hush fell on the crowd. Kerry North was the battleground for Sinn Fein’s Martin Ferris, with Ferris’s IRA past providing opponents with plenty of ammunition during the election run-up.
When the returning officer announced the numbers in English, and then in Irish, O’Neill’s erupted in cheers and whistles. The Irish Labor Party’s Dick Spring was faring badly. Barbre de Brun came on the air to congratulate Martin Ferris. Then the connection failed once again. People stared into space, or shifted around the room. Slowly, the crowd seemed to remember that these were the moments when, waiting for results, democracy could get very boring. It was time to take solace in some dark refreshment in a pint glass.
“Comes dropping slow, as Yeats said,” said John T. Fitzgerald, next to the scoreboard. The Sinn Fein column bore a forlorn “1,” for the confirmed result from Cavan/Monaghan, Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghfn + Caol_in.
A burly man with wild hair entered. “Kieran,” he said to the bar owner, “do you have anything out of Carlow yet?” Staunton consulted his sheets of figures. They chatted excitedly. The bar was filling up again, and Campbell had the connection restored.
Into the bar strode Rep. Peter King, for once not wearing his double-breasted suit. After getting stuck into breakfast, King got stuck into the Irish election.
“The better Sinn Fein does in these elections,” he said, “the harder it is for people to say they’re not serious about democracy. If some people have doubts about them, then why have they put all this energy into this election? For nationalists and republicans to do well in this election will certainly keep the U.S. government on board the process.”
Next to the entrance to the bar, a pay phone started ringing. After two or three rings, Liam MacNellis from Derry picked it up.
“Hello? Hello?” he asked. Moments later, he hung up.
“Who was that, Liam?” someone asked.
“Dick Spring,” he shot back. “He’s looking for a bar job.” Spring once worked as a barman in New York.
Once again, it was time to take solace in some dark refreshment in a pint glass.